Monday, July 22, 2013

Voices From the Storm

The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath

Edited by Lola Vollen and Chris Ying

The Voice of Witness series is a collection of books that share oral history on topics of social justice and human rights, published by McSweeney's.  Voices from the Storm is the second book in their series, and it tells the stories of a number of people from the New Orleans area who lived through Hurricane Katrina and the days of chaos and loss that followed it.

This book is fascinating.  The interviewers have found a wide cross-section of New Orleans people, from the poor black residents of the Ninth Ward, which was completely flooded, to a Vietnamese priest.  Thirteen people were interviewed at length, although some, such as Kermit Ruffins, the popular musician, were not given a lot of space on the page.  Their stories were structured chronologically, so that it's possible to follow the events of the storm as they happened, and see how the affected different people at different times.

Staying true to the structure of oral history, we read pretty much exactly what people said.  This gives us, in addition to an appreciation of the horror of the events, an authentic experience of dialect and diction which adds much local flavour to the stories.  The people interviewed here went through a lot, although by point of fact of their being around to tell their stories, they can be considered lucky to have survived.  Some of the things that they saw or had to go through are hard to imagine happening in a major American city, and this book makes a great companion to Spike Lee's terrific documentary When the Levees Broke.

One of the people interviewed here is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who later became the subject of Dave Eggers's book Zeitoun.  I liked hearing about what happened to him from his own voice, as it added weight to his story, especially when I knew what was going to happen to him when he got picked up by the police.

This is a very well-put together history book, with a number of helpful appendices.  Some of the 'official record' of the storm is included here, and it is just as damming towards the government as the words of the grandmother who had to spend days walking around in deep water trying to find a way out of the city.  Very powerful stuff.

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